Vital Interests

The people's vital interests

What Pickle and Bentsen gain from Salvadoran Aid

By Charley MacMartin
February 1990; page 6; Volume 1, No. 4

The November assassination of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter in El Salvador brought to a head a decade of killing and repression in this Central American country underwritten by U.S. tax dollars. Such grizzly audacity on the part of the Salvadoran Army necessitated super-human damage control on the part of the Salvadoran government of President Alfredo Cristiani and his White House, State Department and Congressional supporters in Washington, D.C.

Damage-control notwithstanding, cracks began to appear in the bipartisan consensus on aid to El Salvador during the following weeks. Now, in 1990, legislation has been put forward in both the U.S. House and Senate calling for restrictions on U.S. aid to El Salvador. In the House, Rep. Ron Dellums (D-Ca.) has sponsored a halt in aid to El Salvador until specific conditions are met including completion of the investigation of the massacre of the Jesuits. In the Senate, Senator Kerry (D-Ma.) has sponsored legislation calling for a 30 percent cut in aid to El Salvador.

Here in Austin, Representative to the U.S. House, J.J. Pickle, agrees to the importance of some restriction on aid to El Salvador, but refuses to embrace an outright suspension of support for the Salvadoran government. Senator Lloyd Bentsen, unencumbered by facts, stands behind President Bush's policy of full-support for Alfredo Cristiani and the ARENA party. Indeed, the Senator refuses to meet with Texas constituents on the issue of aid to El Salvador.

Local activists and community members pressured Pickle and Bentsen the final two months of 1989 with a three-part strategy: informational meetings, public demonstration and targeted occupation. Early in November, neither the Representative nor the Senator expressed a strong interest in El Salvador, refusing face-to-face meetings with local residents.

The events of November, in addition to occupations of both offices, brought a change in Pickle's stance. Religious leaders in Austin played a key role in the following weeks, meeting directly with the Pickle, providing him at times with first-hand evidence of the repression in El Salvador. These meetings culminated in early December when Austin CISPES brokered a meeting between Pickle and FMLN diplomatic representative, Gladis Sibrian.

Senator Lloyd Bentsen, less receptive to discussion, had his public events of the December Congressional recess continually interrupted by angry constituents, including a late-November fundraiser and the December UT graduation ceremony. Area activists targeted Bentsen again on January 23, occupying his office and forcing its early closing.

The people's vital interests

Two important questions emerge from the struggle over "No-Aid" legislation. First, why is the Congressional delegation so unwilling to suspend aid? The first response given by congressional aides is: isolating the Cristiani government by suspending aid will only cause even worse bloodshed. This rationale dissolves in the face of examples including successful pressure exerted upon the government of South Africa by the European Economic Community and then, belatedly, by the U.S. Congress.

Isolation forces negotiation, especially for countries like El Salvador who depend so heavily upon external markets and foreign aid. The Salvadoran government receives over 50 percent of its annual budget from U.S. aid. The threat of a cutoff would quickly force concessions if the government were to survive.

A second rationale for continued aid to El Salvador is then quickly unfurled: strategic interests. Now, if one walks out onto the streets of Austin and asks ten people if they have strategic interests in El Salvador, one would not expect many affirmatives. Well, then, who is articulating these "strategic interests" to our Congressional delegation? A quick look at who provides support to our Representative and Senator lends a clue.

In short, among contributors to our Congressional delegation, weapons manufacturers directly involved in El Salvador appear frequently and generously. Lockheed, General Electric, and Motorola contribute often to Representative Pickle's campaigns, usually giving the maximum amount allowed by law. Of course, corporations side-step such legal niceties by forming political action committees, "concerned employee" support committees, and having different branches of the same company contributing individually.

Lockheed ships arms to the U.S. war effort in Central America; General Electric produces the Vulcan Gattling-gun for helicopter strafing missions in El Salvador; and Motorola provides arms training for Salvadoran technicians at its training center in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.

Bentsen's campaign-contribution report clearly delineates who gets to define the "strategic interests" of "our" country. Amid the myriad of banks, coal companies and defense contractors emerge corporations supplying weapons and technology in the Salvadoran war effort including Boeing, E.I. DuPont, E-Systems, General Electric, GTE, Hughes Aircraft, Lockheed, Litton Systems, Martin-Marietta and MacDonnell-Douglass - and that, folks, is only through the "M's."

It should be noted that these companies' sales to El Salvador are only a small fraction of total sales. Yet, as the "big deals" in aerospace contracts and large defense systems slacken in availability, such smaller deals will become - in the economist's jargon - marginally more significant. Moreover, the example of a negotiated, peaceful solution in El Salvador would be bad for "strategic interests" (read: sales) in other profitable hot-spots such as neighboring Guatemala, the Philippines and the Middle East.

A second question remains: strategically, what do these incestuous campaign contribution ties mean for halting U.S. aid to El Salvador? In short, moralizing with the representatives of war-profiteers will only take us so far in changing votes on continued aid to El Salvador. If cost/benefit makes them listen, then we must raise the cost of continued support for the Salvadoran government. This means not only targeted, militant occupation of their offices, but also isolating Bentsen and Pickle from their constituents by building a broad opposition to U.S. aid.

Meetings with Pickle and Bentsen are still useful. Yet on-going discussion with Pickle, Bentsen and their aides can only be effective if complemented by the potential to shut down Congressional business-as-usual. Until such potential is realized, Congress will be happy to have us talk endlessly while its members continue voting for "strategic interests."

The state's vital interests